We may be far removed from the days of Al Capone, but the Chicago of today is still known for an abundance of gang activity. The city’s South and West Sides generally see the most gang violence, but that doesn’t mean the Northwest Side doesn’t have its problems.
Portage Park, one of the safer neighborhoods in Chicago, has started to see a surge in gang activity; largely because of Carl Schurz High School, the area is now considered gang infiltrated, said Gerard Staniszewski, president of the Portage Park Neighborhood Association.
“I don’t want to kid anyone and make them believe that it’s as bad in other neighborhoods, but it is the largest [amount of gangs] we have seen in years,” said Staniszewski.
What makes gang presence in Portage Park so surprising is the neighborhood’s quiet atmosphere and its proximity to the northwest suburb of Niles. The Chicago suburbs aren’t typically known for gang activity, and many residents who live in Niles and Portage Park say they aren’t aware of the problem.
Piotr Topor, a 10-year resident of Portage Park, said he has noticed gangs but doesn’t think anything of them.
“From my experience it’s pretty safe,” he said. “I’ve never found myself in any danger.”
Staniszewski said part of the problem is that the community is blind to the gang increase. This could be because police in the 17th District, which stretches from Belmont Avenue north to Devon Avenue and from the Chicago River west to Cicero Avenue, try to take care of problems quietly and efficiently.
“We have seen an increase in tagging, but the police react very quickly,” Staniszweski said.
The common gangs at Schurz are said to be the Bloods and Crips, Staniszewski said, but smaller crews and gangs tend to branch out. Since the neighborhood has a larger elderly population than youth, the number of gangsters is still fairly small.
Usually gangs are known for fighting, vandalizing, drug dealing and pick-pocketing, but in Portage Park, the biggest threat they bring is tagging, according to David McNaughton, the 16th District commander.
“We stop them, we find out what’s going on, what they’re doing in the neighborhood,” McNaughton said. “We instruct them that type of behavior is not allowed here in our district.”
The 16th District has a special section on its Web site where residents can send pictures of the tagging so police can deal with it quickly.
If there are problems at home or school, troubled teens can get help at the Youth Outreach Center, located at 6417 W. Irving Park Road.
Ellisette Villegas, a treatment counselor at the Youth Outreach Center, said gangs are not the only issue the center deals with. Language barriers, single parent homes, mental health, runaway, grief and loss, poor decision-making and anger management are other problems she sees on a regular basis.
“More communication at home with parents-parent involvement along with consistent counseling” is the most effective way to combat gang recruitment, Villegas said.
Villegas said the center does see evidence of gang activity.
“Some clients will come in wearing specific colors or even talk about their own involvement, even though we explain to clients from the beginning that we prefer they leave that issue outside of the agency, especially if they are in a group setting,” Villegas said.
Villegas said some male gang members are troubled because of the absence of a father figure. Others have even more heart-wrenching stories.
“There have been clients who have been shot due to being involved or affiliated with gangs,” said Villegas. “Sometimes we have clients who have witnessed gang-related shootings, so there is some trauma to be dealt with. We as counselors usually find out about these events afterward and would then process with them.”’
Gangs typically start as a small crew, but through recruitment and addiction to drugs and the excitement of fitting in, they expand into a criminal entity that is hard to break. Many cities even have special police units to combat gangs in certain neighborhoods. Residents of Portage Park don’t have to worry about special units yet, but if the problem isn’t taken care of with swift action, some say the gangs could take over.
Gangs are a combination of three things, says Jack Murphy, director of security at Wright College: “Environment plays a role, a maturity aspect is there, and influence.”
The 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department said the best way to eliminate them is through swift action.
“Don’t put up with it,” Murphy said.